Commissioners: Margarette May Macaulay; Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño (not present); Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva (not present); Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli (Rapporteur for State of Colombia); Joel Hernández García; Antonia Urrejola Noguera; and Flávia Piovesan (not present)

Other: Soledad García Muñoz (Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights)

Petitioners: Comisión Colombiana de Juristas (CCJ) / Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR) / Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda / Corporación Humanas Colombia / Corporación Yira Castro / Corporación Jurídica Libertad / Corporación Reiniciar / Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES) / Comité de Solidaridad con Presos Políticos (CSPP) / Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL) / Grupo Interdisciplinario (GIDH) / Humanidad Vigente Corporación Jurídica (HVCJ) / Programa No Gubernamental de Protección a Defensores de DD.HH en Colombia, Programa Somos Defensores / Sisma Mujer / Asociación MINGA

State: Colombia

Although hopeful about the situation human rights defenders face in Colombia, civil society organizations wore black to grieve the murders of many defenders. Colombia’s historical Peace Agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016 was a major advancement in the exercise and observance of human rights. However, the country is still facing a climate of hostility towards human rights defenders and their work. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ (IACHR) 2017 Annual Report, Colombia has complied with many of the recommendations issued by the Commission, such as establishing a truth commission to investigate violations against human rights defenders. Colombia has the obligation to continue designing and implementing effective policies for human rights defenders’ protection and investigating cases of violence against these defenders. Since 2016, the IACHR has granted ten precautionary measures to protect human rights defenders. It is important to continue the fight against impunity of crimes so that these defenders can continue their work in seeking peace and consolidating a democratic society.

The purpose of the thematic hearing of December 6, 2018 was to inform the IACHR of the risks and attacks human rights defenders in Colombia have faced in recent years. Although the Commission has monitored the situation after the peace agreement with FARC was implemented, there is still more to be done. The petitioners asked the Commission to monitor the situation more closely and provide further recommendations. Diana Sanchez, from Asociación MINGA, shared information on the structural impunity since the signing of the peace agreement. Since November 2016, 360 human rights defenders have been killed, and since August 23, 2018, sixty-four have been killed. Carolina Solano, from Comisión Colombiana de Juristas, stated that the organizations present at the hearing have inquired with the Attorney General’s Office to learn more about the murders. Sixty-four percent of these cases are still in the preliminary stages and only eight percent of the cases have resulted in a sentence. However, these numbers do not take into account other violations that human rights defenders face, such as sexual violence, internal displacement, and enforced disappearances. While the Attorney General’s Office has provided some information on the cases under investigation, it has not provided specific information about how women are in an extremely vulnerable position. Specifically, women are victims of femicides and sexual violence. Linda Cabrera, from Sisma Mujer, stated that it is difficult for human rights defenders to escape the risks associated with their work. Defenders regularly face stigmatization from the government and receive threats against themselves and their families. The State must uphold international and regional conventions, and the rights enshrined in them, to confront these problems. Furthermore, the State must establish gendered-focus investigations of violations because women are disproportionally affected and need to be distinguished in the overall statistics.

The State of Colombia maintains that its administration has implemented the peace agreement. Furthermore, the State said the Plan for Timely Action for the prevention and protection of human rights defenders currently protects 4,367 defenders, with special measures taken to protect women. The State noted that the Attorney General’s Office has focused on the best practices to ensure these rights are respected and initiates investigations into these crimes as soon as they receive information. The government has found several groups responsible for these attacks and has made progress in addressing 55.4% of the 213 murders reported by the United Nations.

Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli, the Rapporteur for State of Colombia, had recently made a trip to Bogota and Medellin in November 2018 to look at country conditions and observed an increase in violence against human rights defenders. He mentioned the State is working with the United Nations to implement strategies to deal with those responsible for these crimes. Moreover, the IACHR asked the civil society organizations why it was important for them to have a reunion with the State to discuss these issues.

Jomary Ortegón, from Corporación Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, answered, in representation of the petitioners, that to end the stigmatization that human rights defenders face and ensure their rights are protected, the State has to stop denying that a problem exists. Students involved in protests, for example, are regularly branded as rebels and troublemakers in media reports when they were just exercising their freedom of speech. The State needs to address these incidents since they further the stigma of being a defender. Marco Romero, from Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, also mentioned that the areas where these murders occur, such as where human rights defenders are internally displaced and where there is a majority of afro-descendant people, are the ones that closely need to be investigated. In the end, the petitioners argued that if these human rights leaders are not protected, then there is no real democracy. The State responded by inviting the petitioners to a dialogue to address the issue of stigmatization and said they will continue to work with the United Nations to implement protocols to protect these human rights defenders. The IACHR was to analyze the situation in Colombia and give recommendations after the thematic hearing.

The IACHR issued a report on January 15, 2019 summarizing the Rapporteur’s findings during his visit to Colombia in November 2018 and outlining the IACHR’s recommendations from the hearing. During his visit, the Rapporteur observed that the factors behind the violence towards human rights defenders include land control, the increase in illegal crops, and the presence of illegal armed groups, such as drug traffickers. These circumstances expose defenders resisting criminal activities to violence. One of these armed groups, the Águilas Negras, even issued written threats to human rights defenders to remain quiet or be killed like others have before them. The Commission asked the State of Colombia to increase its efforts to confront the impunity of these crimes and conduct investigations with a gender-based approach. In response to the civil society organizations’ request to participate in the implementation of prevention plans in Colombia, the Commission agreed to monitor these measures jointly with the State. The Commission noted that the State has been involved in creating the stigma around human rights defenders by spreading negative views about their work and labeling them as enemies of the State when their discourse conflicts with the State’s. Freedom of expression should be protected because the work of human rights defenders strengthens democracy and the rule of law. Furthermore, protection of the freedom of expression ensures the protection of everyone’s fundamental rights. Hopefully the IACHR, civil society organizations, and the State of Colombia can work together to guarantee human rights defenders, as well as their work, are further protected.